SHORT TERM 12 Review

Short Term 12 is a slice of life dramedy that will suck you in immediately and have you engulfed in the world of its timid characters that are doing nothing more than trying to do their part to make a difference in the world with an approach that truly means something to them. This film is one of those rare cases where I walked in knowing little to nothing about what I was going to experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a well balanced tone of what mirrors real life the closest. None of us live completely within the bounds of these genres that Hollywood has so conveniently put together so as to garner massive audiences for each one that cater to the dominant attitude one might carry. Despite the fact humans generally tend to gravitate towards specific personality traits or uncontrollable factors that determine how they are perceived the majority of us live a life filled with moments of equal highs and lows. Granted, this range of emotions is usually reserved to be explored in the smaller, less expensive films that tackle more singular subjects and therefor may have a more narrow audience looking for it, when they are done well they can likely appeal to whoever stumbles upon them and it seems Short Term 12 has the potential to have that appeal. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has expanded his 2008 short film of the same name into feature length form and in doing so has given himself room to explore the devastating effects of what mental, physical and sexual abuse have on children and not just in the immediate aftermath but years and years on when you would hope the victim might have been able to look past and move on. It is as much an enlightening and inspirational film as it is a heart wrenching and extremely personal documentation of the individuals who have experienced such disgusting encounters and have had to grow and learn to adapt in a world that often times expects them to get over it without ever being able to accept the fact they might live what most of us would call a "normal life". With a strong script and some purely exceptional performances Short Term 12 turns out to be one of the more affecting films of the year that has probably been seen the least.  

Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Grace (Brie Larson) have their ups and downs in Short Term 12.
We are first introduced to Mason (The Newsroom's John Gallagher Jr.) as he and his co-workers Jessica (Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Stephanie Beatriz) and Nate (Rami Malek of The Master), who's on his first day at the job, as Mason tells the story of the first time he had what they call "gate duty" and had to try and talk a large and intimidating foster child who had just walked out of the limits of the foster home into staying. He is doing it partly to comfort Nate, but more than anything it seems to scare the shit out of him. In the process of telling his story their boss, Grace (Brie Larson) rides up on her bike and enjoys the story for what is likely the four hundredth time. These young twenty-somethings run the titular foster home in could be anywhere America and come face to face with children every day that have either been taken from their biological parents or have never known a stable home. Grace is a strong leader though it is clear she has her own demons and may or may not be fully mature enough to handle them on her own yet. Either way, whatever it is that lies in the corners of her past allows her to connect with these kids and helps her communicate and get through to them in ways that someone like Nate, a privileged college grad who's "always wanted to work with underprivileged kids", ever could. We are introduced to several of the kids that make up Short Term 12 and how their stories and present lives play into the peoples who watch over them day by day only hoping that their small part might impact them in a big way. There is Marcus (a truly enlightening Keith Stanfield) who is quickly approaching his eighteenth birthday and more than anything seems scared to leave this safe haven he has become so comfortable within. There are quirky younger children like Sammy (Alex Calloway) and Luis (Kevin Hernandez of The Sitter) who have their own ticks as well as newcomer Jayden (Last Man Standing's Kaitlyn Dever) who has been acting out since her mother passed away and who Grace finds uncomfortable common ground with.

What is maybe most impressive about the film are the level of performances given from a group of largely unknown and young actors. This is not to take away anything from Brie Larson who is likely the most seasoned of the group, but still very much a newcomer. She has appeared in a slew of well-received films over the past two years (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now, Don Jon) but what she is able to do here is convey a sense of duality in what she is feeling on the interior and what she allows to come through on her exterior. She has become accustomed to the kids coming and going, adapting to the different needs of each and reminding herself that she is not necessarily there to be a therapist or a parent to them, but simply to provide a safe environment to grow-up in and remind them that they have someone who is looking out for their well-being. After all, this is essentially what is missing from each of their lives: people who care. In that they have been abandoned and abused they feel worthless and so despite her attempts at consistently keeping a strict policy for herself about getting involved she knows how to relate and she can't help but to become invested in these lives that should seemingly be so much more cherished than they are in actuality. As Marcus readies himself to leave Jayden is welcomed into the fold and it is in this transition period we witness Grace go through what could accurately be described as a breakdown. As she talks through daily crisis' with different kids we begin to piece together her own backstory and what has come to define her outlook, her perspective, her empathy for them and why she is so passionate about the work she is doing. It is as much a film that chronicles the trials and tribulations of kids with no sense of stability as it is a character study around Grace and how far she has come and how far she still has to go. It is to Larson's credit that her Grace feels completely authentic in her intentions and that she is not simply doing this work to make herself feel better or so that she may gain some kind of peace from it, but truly because she knows what its like to have been in these dark places and wants to rescue as many souls as she can from ever wandering into them.

Grace is forced to confront her own demons when she meets Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).
In saying it is just as much about the journey of those who feel invisible though, this truly makes the film an ensemble piece and that is intriguing because not only do we have this intensely personal account of Grace where her environment re-enforces her character, but this environment and the people that make it up have personalities and problems all their own. The screenplay does well to both help us understand why these people influence Grace as well as forming full and honest characters themselves that can exist separately were she taken out of the picture. This is especially true with both Marcus and Jayden. They are each assigned their big moments and they feel as credible as anything else in the film, which Cretton shoots very much in the style of a documentary that helps emphasize the authenticity of the picture, but they add layers to the story that would be absent were it just concerning Grace, her struggles and her relationship with Mason. Whether it be scenes in which Marcus freestyles that add a touch of comedy or extreme intensity Stanfield is able to deliver a pain not only in his voice (a character all its own) but in his body language, his requests, his facial expressions all of which are done with precise reason and telling only in ways we better come to know as we better get to know him. While Dever's performance isn't as calculated or monumental it is still a very sincere take on a lifestyle the young actress has likely never been exposed to. At only 16, Dever has given a heartfelt performance that matches what Grace needs to make her come out of her funk. Jayden is darkly sarcastic, matching her grungy look with her narcissistic attitude, but as with everyone there is a genuine point of human emotion to get in contact with and watching Grace unravel her from this protective shell and seeing Dever slowly open up is as inspiring as it is satisfying to see Grace finally confront herself instead of placing all her energy into confronting these kids that need help. With all of that, Short Term 12 is one of the more emotionally demanding films I've seen all year and no matter if you end up relating only a little bit or a whole lot there is still an impact here that is unavoidable and that is what good movies are supposed to do; they hit you right in the heart.